With playwriting being seen as a solitary activity, what changes when you form a writing partnership? In this guest post, playwright Tamara von Werthern discusses all she learnt about co-writing for her new play JACKPOT.
It’s not always easy to write plays, is it?
You need to come up with an interesting story, invent characters, write scenes, keep the storyline in mind, write more scenes, make your characters believable and bring them to life and then, you guessed it, write more scenes. And when you finished the first draft you need to rewrite it and change everything you just did!
Most importantly, throughout this process, you have to keep faith in what you’re doing, even if it’s just the belief that you will be able to finish the damn thing.
And being a part of a writing partnership, especially in these early stages of development, can be incredibly helpful in keeping the faith going. This is because it’s no longer just you believing in and championing the project.
I have always thought of writing as a solitary experience, but since I recently ended up co-writing a piece for the first time, I’ve had the eye-opening experience of the benefits co-writing can bring to the writing process.
As a converted co-writer, I thought I’d put together some top tips on how to make this process as smooth as possible:
1- Pick your partner wisely
My co-writing partner was an old friend, Jack Hughes. We had been working together for years but never written together. The play we ended up creating, JACKPOT, was born like most good things are – at a night out in a pub.
Jack and I were talking about a number of things, including our frustration at a whole generation being priced out of London and home ownership becoming a distant dream. So we had the same thought all playwrights do: “You know what we should do? We should write about that.”
Co-writing was great: it took a lot of the doubt out of the equation and gave both of us a structure to work with. If you know that your writing partner is waiting for the next scene, it gives you a certain drive to keep going.
But as much as I enjoyed co-writing, that isn’t to say I would be able to co-write with everyone and anyone. It’s not always easy to find someone whose thinking gels enough with your own to make a coherent whole.
You want to avoid ending up with a Frankenstein-type script, so you need to choose someone who writes both in a similar style to you and also uses the same process.
2- Keep communicating
Jack started off the writing on the tube on his way home, and presented me the next morning with the first building block and the first two characters, Sarah and Hal.
He sent me three pages of dialogue and I took it from there. I wrote another three pages and sent it back to him. Then he picked off where I had left it and then we played ping pong across London, writing alongside both raising our young families.
Though we barely met, we spoke by phone and by email, ensuring we were still on the same page (even if we were writing different ones…) and it gave us a chance to raise any concerns before either one of us had got too far with our writing.
3- Remember it’s a partnership
The difficult thing was the editing. If you write by yourself and you’re not happy with a phrase or a paragraph, you cut it. You don’t have to consult with anyone, you are solely responsible for the outcome and you’re not accountable to anyone. This changes when you collaborate. You can’t simply take something out if you don’t like it.
But also don’t be afraid to raise something you want to change with your writing partner. And don’t be offended if they want to debate something you have written. Feedback is one of the main benefits of co-writing, so make use of it!
4- Try to hear the play out loud
This goes for any production, but the danger of co-writing is that you both become so immersed in the world of the play that neither of you can see the bits that don’t quite make sense.
Try and secure a reading to introduce another voice into your partnership – it’ll show you things you had both become oblivious to.
We were incredibly lucky to be offered support from London College of Music (LCM) with the development. They were looking for new writing to work on with their students, so I sent the play in and we got the gig.
It was for a week’s development work with third year acting students and a public reading at the end. I asked Lily McLeish, who had directed my previous play, THE WHITE BIKE, and she was happy to be involved with the process.
We were also lucky to receive Arts Council Funding, which allowed both Jack and myself to take time off work and actually be in the room together for the first time. Finally working on the piece face-to-face was amazing.
During that week we found time to explore the world of the play with the actors, do detailed questioning of the script and write up all the facts and questions arising from it. We drew connections we hadn’t seen before and dared to make the piece even darker and funnier than it had been before.
Remember that co-writing doesn’t mean the script has to involve just you and your writing partner(s). Don’t be afraid to widen the collaboration, which leads us nicely onto…
5- Get feedback outside of each other
At the reading, we left feedback forms for the audience and received twenty-seven filled out forms at the end of the night. Twenty-seven! All of them said they would love to see it in a full production and all of them had useful and concise feedback on what was not yet clear to them in the script.
This feedback fed back into our next round of rewrites, getting us ready to present the finished play in a final public reading.
But how do I find a co-writer?
Hopefully this has got you thinking that co-writing sounds great. But you may not be sure where to begin finding a co-writer. You could advertise on platforms like London Playwrights’ Blog , or you could join a writing group or workshop and find someone you work well with there. Or, like me, consider ringing up an old friend. I can really recommend it!
A public reading of JACKPOT, a pitch black comedy about the housing crisis, will take place at The Hackney Attic on 24 January. You can get tickets here.